The answer lies in spotting when a trend turns into a cultural shift.
The saying goes that once you react to a trend it’s already too late. For businesses, where getting maximum bang for buck is the name of the game, detecting the next big thing in its infancy is critical. The clear downside to this logic is that it requires somewhat of a gamble – unless there is a business out there that has the power to predict the future. In an era where every tweet is scrutinised, every investment dollar accounted for and every business facing increasingly stiff competition, it’s a gamble not every CEO is prepared to take. But why not?
Many of the most successful businesses around today were started by entrepreneurs who, for want of a better word, “took a punt.” In reality, this is a calculated, researched and intuitive risk backed by their ability to see a trend before everyone else and act on it in a new and creative way. Airbnb saw the Sharing Economy coming, Deliveroo saw the Gig Economy coming and there are luminaries such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk who seemingly saw everything coming. These trailblazing founders, CEOs and companies have had a much more profound influence on business than their innovative products and platforms. They have consciously and subconsciously delivered a message to businesses that it is possible to find trends early and that, if acted on appropriately, can deliver unprecedented positive change. It’s that moment when trends reach critical mass that we call “shifts.” It’s these shifts that have persuaded other companies to understand how deeply they need to embrace early trend spotting.
While the trend hunting ecosystem has advanced beyond all recognition, the role of a CEO has not. They remain in charge of appropriately allocating money to grow the company, cognizant of the fact that shareholders expect results. This means that now more than ever trends must deliver business value. Tools in place? Check. Technology up to scratch? Check. Belief in benefit? Check. Then let’s go hunting.
Change is constant
The bad news is that once you start trend hunting, it is difficult to stop. That isn’t because it is dangerously addictive – though we would say it is. More so that searching for trends is an ongoing process because of the wants, needs, and tastes of the consumer change. There are a number of reasons for this, but since the customer is what drives a company’s success, it is imperative to make sure that products and services are always in line with what they want and need.
There’s no way that a business would be able to stay relevant, or in some cases even exist, without knowing how the customer is spending his or her money. With that in mind, one of the first business processes should be staying current with developing trends. This in itself is the first and arguably hardest hurdle to overcome. Businesses are built on planning and structure. Clear strategies that are mapped out with contingencies, succession and budget. By its definition, the only constant with trend spotting is change.
This means it is critical, if not an outright necessity, for businesses and those at the helm to learn to accept – and even embrace – change. Trying something different when all is going well is bold and brave but that is precisely when a business must be looking to evolve. Chances are that if an organisation gets too comfortable and adapt to trends too late in the game, a competitor will beat it to the punch. Then, instead of staying ahead of those trends, the business will be playing catch-up, which can cause problems. Whether a company is ready for them or not, trends change industries every day. Knowing what’s coming around the corner and evolving alongside those changes can keep a business competitive.
The youth of tomorrow
Of course, being at the cutting edge of tomorrow is not as simple as parachuting somebody into a business, giving them a funky job title and telling them to get on with it. Organisations need to have a culture of acting on shifts and trends and somebody in the C-suite banging the drum for the value in finding them. This person, or people, will understand how to filter cultural trends into effective industry relevant insights in a business capacity.
This is becoming increasingly critical – and was identified several years ago – as more and more technologically-astute Millennials come into senior business roles. More open to taking a leap of faith than their historical counterparts, this group understands the importance of “being on the front foot” and have complete faith in the technology to support them. Where the Baby Boomers showed a certain reluctance to change, for subsequent generations it is embraced as a part of life. These generations will swap jobs or even careers multiple times; they will share cars, jobs and workspaces. They will barely notice the technological change because to them, it is inevitable. These generations are being influenced on a daily basis, but unlike generations of old, they expect their businesses and service providers to keep up with their appetite for change. For them, a lack of change is unforgivable.
Spot the difference
Understanding the differences in shifts, trends, fads, insights, and opinion is subtle, but key. Most businesses are aware of and affected by macro shifts – the all-encompassing changes that endure like climate change, globalisation, and robotics. They can last generations, even centuries, although the rise in internet shopping presents endless examples of companies that were blind to one of the most influential shifts of our time. Then there are consumer shifts that represent the habits, behaviours, and expectation of consumers. Smartphone usage, wearable technology, and the increased desire for well-being are great examples. These drive significant change over a number of years and should not be mistaken for passing fads such as wheatgrass, hipster beards or gym ball office chairs.
Knowing the difference between the weight and importance of trends, the signifiers of their domination and how to analyse them informs successful decision-making. It can mean the difference between jumping on a fad just as it fades or being the brand that creates it. While every new social media platform presents possible new opportunities, the likes of Snapchat, Instagram and others are not the influencers, they are just the connectors. The more we rely on AI and computer-centred technology, the more we crave the human experience, and it’s that experience that the smart tech will track. Recognising the underlying patterns of human experiences and behaviour is what will enable a business to see what will turn from a fad to a trend, and from a trend to a shift.
Challenge the status quo
Trends are something tangible that businesses can map and track, can become immersed in and can even create. They can informatively imagine the future and create the opportunity, and it’s not just marketing. Bold CEOs will incorporate trends across the corporate strategy, R&D and product development and design. As Millennials evolve to boardroom roles, we are seeing more and more examples of established corporations adopting new trend driven directions.
But this does not mean we stop. Even now, there are too many businesses making the mistake of defending the status quo instead of challenging it. Complacency will eventually lead to a downfall because customers are looking for something fresh and relevant – Just ask Nokia, Kodak or Blockbuster. Everything changes; it always has, and it always will. You can keep up with the changes, or you can create them. I know where I would rather be.
Luca Morena is the Co-founder and CEO of Nextatlas, a platform analysing billions of consumer data to provide foresight and trend monitoring services. He will be presenting at this year’s Festival of Marketing, London, 10-11 October on ‘AI is growing up fast: what’s next for brands using AI to predict customer needs?’